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CDC: Only half of first marriages last 20 years

In a survey released by the National Center for Health Statistics, the data shows couples who are engaged when they move in together have longer marriages than those who live together without that commitment. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

Even though Americans are marrying older, the divorce rate has remained high, a new government report shows.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers found that the median age for women getting hitched for the first time has risen to almost 26 and to over 28 for men.

Among women there was just a 52 percent chance that a first marriage would survive for 20 years, according to the report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Men appeared to be slightly more successful, with a 56 percent chance of a first marriage surviving for two decades.

The older marriage age doesn’t mean that people aren’t getting into relationships – they’re just choosing to live together instead.  “There’s been a real rise in the prevalence of cohabitation,” said the report’s lead author, Casey E. Copen, a demographer with the National Survey of Family Growth at the National Center for Health Statistics.

The percentage of women living with a partner (as opposed to marrying him) has nearly quadrupled from 3 percent in 1982 to 11 percent in the newest survey. The earlier surveys included data only from women so the researchers couldn’t look at whether there had been a change in the rate at which men were choosing to live together rather than to marry.  

The new report includes information from 22,682 Americans between the ages of 15 and 44 who were interviewed in their homes between 2006 and 2010. The researchers also had data from six earlier surveys dating back to 1973 to compare with the new information.

One intriguing finding from the study is that more highly educated people wedded later -- and had longer lasting marriages. Copen and her colleagues found that 78 percent of women with at least a bachelor’s degree had made it to their 20th anniversary as compared to 41 percent of women with only a high school diploma. Similarly, 65 percent of college educated men saw a 20th anniversary as compared to 47 percent of the men who hadn’t gone beyond high school.

That falls in line with other new research showing that blue collar folks are less likely to get married than their white collar counterparts, Copen said. “Research has shown that there’s a socioeconomic divide between those who marry and those who don’t,” she added. “People may be more likely to transition to marriage when they feel more economically stable.”

The researchers also found that the lack of a marriage certificate isn’t keeping people from having babies. “A lot of women and men have children while cohabitating,” Copen said.

So, did the new report shed any light on what it takes to stay married? Maybe - depending on how you interpret the results.

For one thing, if you want to stay hitched, you probably shouldn’t choose someone who’s gotten divorced. Looking only at first marriages, just 38 percent of women who chose to wed a divorced man were still married by their 20th anniversary, as compared to 54 percent of those who wed a man who’d never been married.

Another possible predictor of a shortened wedded bliss: marrying someone who already has kids. Looking only at women in a first marriage, just 37 percent of those marrying a man with kids made it to their platinum anniversary as compared to 54 percent of those who wed a man with no children.

Still, children may indeed be the glue that keeps people together – if they’re conceived and born after the couple marries.

Among women who remained childless just 50 percent reached their platinum anniversary as compared to 77 percent of those who bore children at least 8 months after getting married.

In the end, the report may be telling us something good about the way Americans view marriage.  

Although women are taking longer to decide to get hitched, they are still doing it at about the same rate as they were back in 1995.